Zito to abandon neutrality for Preakness

Strictly Derby observer, trainer will saddle `Hero,' possibly `Gin' for classic

Horse Racing

May 08, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

At the Kentucky Derby, Nick Zito was an interested - but impartial - observer who could assess the race without prejudice.

On the morning of the Derby, he encountered fellow trainer Bob Baffert and told him: "You're going to steal this race. You'll be the only speed."

At the time, Baffert looked at Zito askance, as if he'd lost a few marbles, but in the post-race analyses, there was the trainer of War Emblem explaining how Zito had called the shot.

But when the 127th Preakness arrives on May 18, Zito will be back as a participant, probably with two horses, Straight Gin and Crimson Hero, both of whom had insufficient earnings to qualify for the Derby.

Those two were among six Zito-trained 3-year-olds in a humongous horse van that arrived at Pimlico yesterday after a 9 1/2 -hour trip from Kentucky.

In keeping with his traditional practice, Zito became the first big-name trainer to have his horses stabled in the Pimlico stakes barn before the Preakness.

"This is just the way we do it," Zito said after the equine entourage settled in. "Baffert and Wayne [Lukas] come in later and have success, too, but we've still run the fastest Preakness ever doing it our way."

The reference was to the 121st running in 1996, when long shot Louis Quatorze blazed around Old Hilltop's oval in 1:53 2/5 for the 1 3/16 miles, tying Tank's Prospect's 1985 record performance.

Crimson Hero, owned by Farmer Tracy, is a definite in what looms as a rather large field. Straight Gin, owned by the Marylou Whitney Stable, is on the bubble under the earnings formula used to determine a maximum of 14 starters, but is likely to make the field.

Zito was encouraged by Straight Gin's fourth-place finish to Harlan's Holiday, Booklet and Ocean Sound in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 13 . "He got nothing out of the Spiral [his previous race], but came back huge in the Blue Grass after he hit the side of the gate."

Crimson Hero's last outing was a second to Proud Citizen, the Derby runner-up, in the Lexington Stakes on April 20.

Zito is in no particular hurry to assign jockeys to his horses. The list that has ridden Crimson Hero includes Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens and Ramon Dominquez, who was aboard when the colt broke his maiden at Pimlico on Sept. 13.

Jorge Chavez and Robby Albarado have dominated the assignments on Straight Gin.

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